Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Weird Western Tales


Since tomorrow is Hallowe'en, it seems appropriate to take a look at the long-standing tradition of mixing horror with the Western, producing the so-called Weird Western. This is a subgenre that cuts across all formats, from pulp fiction and paperbacks to movies, TV, and video games.

Robert E. Howard created the Weird Western during the 1930s with several stories published, appropriately enough, in the pulp magazine WEIRD TALES. Howard combined the supernatural with the traditional Western in such yarns as "The Man on the Ground", "The Horror From the Mound", and "Old Garfield's Heart". His story "The Dead Remember", published in ARGOSY, is a stylistically daring ghost story unlike anything else being done in the pulps at that time. All of these stories are available in the massive, soon-to-be-published collection ROBERT E. HOWARD'S WESTERN TALES, for which I provided the introduction.

As usual, Howard was ahead of his time, and Weird Westerns continued to be rare during the Forties. Every now and then an author would introduce a seemingly supernatural element in a Western story, such as the Masked Rider novel "The Trail of the Blue Snake" by Gunnison Steele (the pseudonym of Bennie Gardner), but these stories invariably fell back on the "Scooby-Doo" ending, where all the mysterious happenings turn out to have logical explanations.

During the Fifties, however, some genuine Weird Westerns began to appear again, most notably a long-running series by Lon Williams in the pulp REAL WESTERN which featured as its hero a deputy marshal named Lee Winters. In the course of his duties, Winters ran up against witches, ghouls, werewolves, and other supernatural creatures, and although occasionally they were explained away, for the most part the reader is left with the impression that these occult menaces were real. Many of the Lee Winters stories can be read on-line for free at www.pulpgen.com.

It was during the Fifties, of course, that movies such as JESSIE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER, BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA, and CURSE OF THE UNDEAD began to appear. These were low-budget projects shot on a very tight schedule and their quality shows that, but they're definitely horror Westerns. Similar plots were used in Western TV series from time to time, as Cheyenne went after a Bigfoot-like creature or a monster stalked the alleys of Dodge City . . . but invariably the writers of these episodes resorted to the old Scooby-Doo ending again.


Another area in which the Weird Western has, if not thrived, at least been used fairly often is the Western paperback series. The most iconic example is the SPECTROS series, a series of four (or possibly five, there's some debate about that) novels by Logan Winters, a pseudonym of the prolific author Paul Joseph Lederer. SPECTROS is a flat-out supernatural series centered around a sorcerer/gunfighter who encounters all sorts of occult menaces in his travels. The house-name books have featured supernatural plots as well, including werewolves (SLOCUM AND THE WOLF HUNT and LONE STAR AND THE KANSAS WOLVES), mysterious creatures (the Gunsmith novel SASQUATCH HUNT and my Trailsman novel HIGH COUNTRY HORROR), zombies (LONGARM AND THE VOODOO QUEEN, by yours truly writing as Tabor Evans), and demons from another realm (LONGARM AND THE DEVIL'SBRIDE by, yes, me). I'm sure there are many, many other examples among the house-name Westerns that I'm not aware of, and if some of you who have read (or written) them want to mention them in the comments, that would be more than welcome.

Other notable novels that feature both horror and Western elements are FEVRE DREAM by George R.R. Martin (yes, the "Game of Thrones" guy, and while this is more of a historical novel, it has riverboats in it and that almost makes it a Western), MOON DANCE by Somtow Sucharitkal, and recently DUST OF THE DAMNED by Western Fictioneers' own Peter Brandvold, which features a ghoul hunter instead of a bounty hunter. C.L. Werner's trilogy BLOOD MONEY,BLOOD & STEEL, and BLOOD OF THE DRAGON, while set in the Warhammer epic fantasy universe, features a bounty hunter named Brunner and the novels are very much Western-influenced.


Then there's a volume near and dear to the hearts of many of us, SIX-GUNS AND SLAY BELLS, the Western Fictioneers Christmas/paranormal anthology, which features a number of stories that can only be called Weird Westerns. Vampires, ghosts, possessed toys, aliens, Sasquatch . . . these yarns are prime examples of the subgenre.

A number of Weird Westerns have been published as comic books, too. There was even a comic book called WEIRD WESTERN TALES from which I've swiped the title of this blog post. It was the home of bounty hunter Jonah Hex (funny how so many of the entries in this subgenre seem to feature bounty hunters) as well as El Diablo, a series about a mild-mannered bank clerk possessed by a gunfighting spirit of vengeance. The original Ghost Rider (not the guy on the motorcycle with the flaming skull) wasn't supernatural, but many of the stories featured eerie elements. Joe R. Lansdale's two Jonah Hex mini-series "Two-Gun Mojo" and "Riders of the Worm and Such" are definitely horror Westerns. Lansdale is also the author of the novel DEAD IN THE WEST, quite possibly the first novel to combine the Western with a zombie apocalypse, long before zombie apocalypses were cool. Even the popular video game RED DEAD REDEMPTION features supernatural elements, as does the role-playing game DEADLANDS.

This just scratches the surface of the Weird Western, but I hope I've intrigued a few of you enough that you'll try some of the novels and stories I've mentioned. If you have some favorites I hope you'll share them with us in the comments. There are numerous blogs and websites devoted to the subject where you can find out much, much more about Weird Westerns if you're interested. I know there are some Western readers, and probably writers and editors, who are very opposed to including anything fantastical in Westerns. For me, though, it just broadens the field and provides more opportunities for me to be entertained. In the meantime, watch out tomorrow night for any trick-or-treaters dressed as buckaroos.

There might be something . . . weird . . . lurking under those cowboy hats.

21 comments:

  1. Great article. Some of these I'm not familiar with... time to do some searching.

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  2. Great post. I have to track some of that down for sure.

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  3. Apparently you can now pre-order a collection of ALL THREE Joe R. Lansdale / Timothy Truman Jonah Hex miniseries: Two-Gun Mojo, Riders of the Worm and Such, and Shadows West... http://www.amazon.com/Jonah-Hex-Shadows-Joe-Lansdale/dp/1401247156/ref=la_B000AP8R6Y_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1383151876&sr=1-6

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  4. James, I love this look at "weird westerns" in so many genres! I'm personally not a huge fan of the "Scooby Doo" ending (love that description!)-- I want there to actually be some things that can't be "explained away". Six Guns and Slay Bells is still one of my all-time favorite anthologies of westerns. Lots of variety, and tons of imagination. This is going to give more "weirdness" to research and read! Thanks so much!
    Cheryl

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  5. James, thanks so much for shining a light on weird westerns. Call me warped, but I've always enjoyed the intersection of both paranormal elements and steampunk with classical westerns. Count me among those who are annoyed by "Scooby-Doo" endings, though. (I agree with Cheryl: great term!) I love it when a tale leaves the unanswerable unanswered.

    I'm glad to hear Howard's works have been collected and re-released in one volume. Sounds like a must-read, to me. :-)

    Let me stick in a vote for SIX-GUNS AND SLAY BELLS, too. LOVED IT!

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  6. Wasn't there an episode of rawhide involving sabertooth tigers?

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  7. I also believe I remember an episode of Bonanza which had the Cartwrights running around chasing leprechauns.

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  8. Enjoyed this post. Even L'Amour in "The Lonesome Gods" had a bit of weird in the story and "The Broken Gun" also I believe.
    Have always been a fan of Howard, you are right, he was ahead of his time. Thank you for the new books to look for and will be awaiting the Howard compilation. Doris

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  9. Troy has a wendigo in one of his Blackwells stories--that ought to qualify as a Wierd Western. Good story. And I loved Six Guns and Slay Bells.

    On the lighter side, I mix fantasy with western romance-- faeries and dragons. None of those are currently available but I do have one where Merlin comes back in 1885 as a mule with dubious magic in Willow, Wish for Me. So a three-genre blend.

    Since I enjoy genre-blends so much, I'm always curious to know how others feel about it.

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  10. Great post! And I love Slaybells!! I also like L'Amour's Haunted Mesa. Just visited the cliff dwellings and am re-reading it.

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  11. Six Guns and Slaybells was a great anthology. I really enjoyed it. I like weird.

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  12. James, check out my friend John Whalen's VAMPIRE SIEGE AT RIO MUERTE -- Bram Stoker by way of Budd Boetticher and Lee Van Cleef.

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  13. Fred, Bram Stoker by way of Budd Boetticher and Lee Van Cleef! Will indeed take a look. And thanks for some new book ideas, James.

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  14. Don't forget Erdelac's well-done "Merkabah Rider" series.

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  15. You can't beat Lansdale for weird westerns. I loved his Jonah Hex yarns - and his take on The Lone Ranger was superb.

    You might also want to check out Tim Curran's novel SKIN MEDICINE.

    And - I have to shamefully add my novella LONG HORN, BIG SHAGGY to the list. I'm talking back-from-the-dead mountain men, time traveling mad scientists, carrion stallion and zombified buffalo.

    As one reviewer put it - "I knew that Steve Vernon was a good writer when I found myself cheering for a decapitated head. Anyone that can put such personality into a dislodged appendage, simply by internal dialogue, deserves kudos in my book."

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  16. A pleasure, to ride into a town like Purgatory again. An honor, to meet the established ones, who are so over-satiated, and used to celebrating their own long faded, or corrupted, achievements. And on the sidewalk, like rabid dogs, the envious & desperate, trying so hard to become established... God knew, as god gave a star to marshal Grim Reaper... ;-)

    http://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1350340-A-Walk-In-The-Park

    That is a nice lil reading, cost-free, until you consider sanity a currency. I got it done without begging for yer money'n'attention, for if I'm half the worthy my darn ego wants to be, I'll make it myself.

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  17. For those who might be interested, all five SPECTROS volumes will be available again soon as ebooks from Open Road. The confusion over the number comes from placing four books with one publisher, another with a different outfit. It's gratifying to find that a few folks still remember this little series fondly after all this time.
    Paul Lederer

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  18. There were five Spectos books, I own them all. The first was from a now defunct publisher, the rest were published by Belmont, with a revised plot.

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  19. I'm expanding on my comment above. the first book was Showdown at Guyamas published by Manor Books in 1978. The remaining four were published in 1981 by Tower Books. A first reader for Showdown at Guyamas was definitely in for a shock; it's packaged as a typical western, but in a scene where a black bird lands and changes into the sorcerer, the reader likely was bound to be puzzled at what was going on. Information on these five books is available at https://www.goodreads.com/series/200739-spectros and at https://www.fantasticfiction.com/w/logan-winters/ .

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  20. http://www.mediafire.com/file/op1wb55a66duhs7/Lone_Stars%2C_Warpstone_Sixguns_%26_Red_Orc_Tomahawks.pdf

    is my newest free Weird-West contribution. Poetry about fantasy races placed in the Wild West. And with fond memories about Deadlands, the Weird West RPG...

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